A Look Back at 2002: Man Facing Death Puts Day of Thanks in Perspective

A Look Back at 2002: Man Facing Death Puts Day of Thanks in Perspective

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November 28, 2002

News Specialist Shelley Osterloh reporting

Thanksgiving is time when we focus on the things we are grateful for and share them with those we love.

You only need to look around to know that life can hand out some tough challenges sometimes.

Usually, a story about a dying man is very sad, but not this one.

The story of Ken Powell is not about hope as much as about blessings, priorities, and most all, gratitude for life well lived.

Every move Ken Powell makes is a struggle that requires all the strength he has. This former engineer and college professor has ALS -- also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Inch by inch his nervous system is shutting down, each day sending fewer messages to his muscles, which in turn stop working and atrophy.

Usually within three to five years of onset, the throat and lungs shut down and the person dies. There is no cure.

"It feels like slow dying," Ken says.

"I think that's probably the hardest part of the whole thing, is knowing that tomorrow I'm not going to feel as good as today."

It started less than two years ago with his hands. Within weeks, he couldn't hold a fork or turn a car ignition key.

Automatically, his wife Judy picked up the slack. Eventually they moved from their family home of 40 years to a condo that is handicap accessible.

They've had to accept a lot of changes.

"I think the hardest thing for me to accept is the absolute dependence," Ken says.

"And seeing the disappointment that he can't do it himself is really what makes me sad. It isn't the serving. I mean, I love the guy and so the service is part of that love. But it is very frustrating for me to see," says his wife Judy.

So they chose to accept the inevitable.

"We decided early on that it would be something we would talk about, and not just tippey toe around, and that we would enjoy the moment of every day, and talk about death, and not just have it come upon us," she says.

Ken, a prolific writer, deals with his illness and frustrations through poetry, using a special voice-activated program.

"Old age is not for wimps, they say..." Ken says.

Judy says humor has helped them deal with day-to-day challenges.

"Even when he was falling, once I found out he wasn't hurt, then we could laugh about it, and say 'do you want a pillow while you're down there?' So I think humor has helped me to have hope," Judy says.

And dying, they say, teaches us what is truly important about life.

"We are all going to die. The only difference between me and everybody else is that I have a better idea of the date than most people have, and knowing that you are going to die, you need to make sure you are doing the important things first," Ken says.

"We have scrap books that we look at every day. And memories, and we try to do two or three good things for other people and think of what to do," Judy says.

"And all through my work life, I made decisions that chose family over money, or family over position, and I'm very glad now. Family, Judy, the church, knowing that there is a God and he loves me," Ken says.

The Powells, who are LDS, say their faith comforts them.

"We've had people say, 'how can you talk about your faith in God when God has done this to you?' God didn't do this to me, life did this to me. God is the one that gives us a way out," Ken says.

And on this day, and every other, the Powells say they are grateful -- for music, for sunsets, for family, for a life well-lived.

"Instead of saying, look at the things we won't have, we list every day the things that we do have, and just hold on to that," Judy says.

"There's a lot of small blessings we can be grateful for," Ken says.

Ken is doing well. He spent this Thanksgiving day surrounded by his family, including four daughters and 12 grandchildren -- no doubt cherishing every moment.

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